If you want to inject a little pizazz into your beverages menu, try a ‘special': unusual tea blends, one-off coffees and extravagant hot chocolates that just beg to be bought. Ian Boughton samples the latest offerings
A very useful aspect of the hot beverage menu is the ‘special', the item which can take a drink from its usual £2-£3 price mark to something far greater than that.
The ideal house special attracts attention on a menu, but is quick to prepare and serve, and which ideally uses items that are already in stock behind the bar.
In a coffee-based item, this is where the capsule concept now really proves its worth, says David Cutler, head of training at Lavazza. The number of blends in the range gives an operator the chance to promote a 'special' featuring a specific coffee, without having to buy, store or grind the appropriate beans – they just pop in the right capsule.
Typically, he says, the capsule can quickly provide the base espresso for one unusual but authentic Italian ‘special'.
"In Turin, coffee shops offer the bicerin, a combination of traditional espresso, hot chocolate and cream, served in a 5oz glass. This is a ‘special' that can be added to menus at a premium; an exclusive experience that customers won't find anywhere else on the high street."
One note of caution, adds Lavazza – make sure the chocolate is rich and creamy in the continental style, because any old hot chocolate powder just will not work.
"The same goes for tailoring capsule espresso with different flavoured syrups to create a ‘house special'. We urge operators not to sacrifice quality by using cheap, synthetic syrups – look for premium syrups or consider making your own in-house, which can be surprisingly simple. As coffee shops across the UK are using all the same syrups from the same brands, creating your own will give you an exclusive artisan menu item."
It is worth knowing that a ‘special' does not need a trained barista on hand, says Anders Bäckström, marketing manager at Crem – the modern, fully automatic coffee machine can be programmed to produce it.
"The prospect of offering high-quality specials in addition to your standard drinks can be daunting. Crem's new Unity 1+ allows the operator to create an entirely bespoke hot beverage menu by specifying the various ingredient configurations and saving them."
And this includes the milk. An impressive display of foam appeals to the customer's eye, and several manufacturers have developed features such as cold-foamed milk for speciality drinks or foam which comes to a high peak.
"The Unity 1+ will deliver different milk textures and temperatures for a truly exceptional beverage," says Backstrom. "All due respect to professional baristas, but for those times when consistent and perfect milk foam is required, nothing beats this system."
It is noticeable that tea suppliers have recently become particularly enthusiastic about the concept of the house special.
"Generally speaking, this has to be something that the customer is unlikely to have seen before and equally unlikely to be able to get at the supermarket," observes John Mellor at Shibui. "I would expect to pay a pound or two more for a well-promoted ‘special'.
"Seasonal blends are where the ‘exclusives' really come into their own, and the best example is Christmas teas. My gingerbread and mulled spice teas both won Great Taste awards last year, and showcasing these as specials brings the reaction of: ‘oh, that looks good – let's treat ourselves'. Our chocolate and ginger blend is very popular for this."
The house special can work equally well as a ‘bundle', says Natalie King, out-of-home account manager at Taylors of Harrogate.
"A clear point of difference from the usual menu is what makes it a special. A tea paired with well-chosen cakes and scones makes a special bundle offer.
"Iced tea is also a perfect addition to a specials menu, and we would encourage caterers to take inspiration from our range of speciality teas – our green tea mojito mocktail is an example of this: it's cold-brewed green tea with mint, lime juice, agave or simple syrup and vanilla, topped with soda and a garnish. It can be easily transformed into a cocktail."
Erica Moore, the founder of tea supplier Eteaket, also runs her own café in Edinburgh, and finds a rising interest in the concept of the mocktail as a house ‘special'. Her ‘Perfect Peppermint Mojito Mocktail' is on the menu at £4.95.
"Tea mocktails are growing in popularity as an interesting alternative to alcohol. Teas and infusions are now so versatile that it makes absolute sense to keep the interest of customers with an ever-changing specials menu," she says.
At Twinings, marketing head James Brett also believes in the concept of the tea ‘special'. "As tea consumption increased by 38% during lockdown, overtaking coffee, it's time for tea to take centre stage. This has to be a different experience to tea that can be made in the kitchen at home, but how does the caterer tempt a customer to pay a little more?
"A really easy tea-based option is the London Fog – an aromatic Earl Grey tea with a shot of sweet vanilla syrup, topped with foamed milk and maybe even a sprinkle of edible flowers. It's an indulgent treat that elevates the classic Earl Grey."
Michelle Jee, brand manager at Tetley, suggests promoting a healthy house special. "Tea drinkers are becoming more inclined to spend money on premium and healthier options – matcha and green teas are being drunk more frequently than they were 12 months ago, and people will pay more for them. Individually wrapped enveloped fruit teas and herbal infusions are also a fast and hassle-free solution."
One attention-grabbing idea, says Tetley, would be a house special based on its Super tea range, which features Super Fruits Boost, a blueberry and raspberry tea with added vitamin B6; Super Green Tea Boost flavoured with strawberry and raspberry; or Super Green Tea Immune, a green tea with mango and pineapple flavours with added vitamin C.
Hot chocolate is the way to create an attention-getting house ‘exclusive', say several suppliers. At Monin, innovation manager Lee Hyde suggests turning the conventional hot chocolate into a higher-priced special with his Death By Hot Chocolate. This looks good on a menu, but is perfectly simple – it is the house's standard hot chocolate, with an added shot of chocolate syrup, topped with whipped cream and garnished with even more chocolate. The name alone could double the price of an ordinary hot chocolate.
"Food and drink are the biggest themes on Instagram, which is why the chains look to social media to create social buzz," says Hyde. "A visually appealing drink that encourages customers to post on social media will ultimately drive awareness and traffic to an outlet. Almost half of industry leaders say that pictures on social media are now the most effective form of marketing for coffee shops."
At Dezaan Cocoa, vice-president Simon Brayn-Smith agrees that enhancing the conventional hot chocolate can easily create a profitable menu item.
"Our tip is to combine our True Dark cocoa powder with orange, a pinch of cinnamon and ground ginger for an Aztec-inspired spicy and fragrant hot cocoa drink. You can also easily premiumise your hot chocolate and recreate a smoky fireside experience by adding a small amount of lapsang souchong tea leaves to a hot chocolate."
In addition, Frances Booth of Lotus Bakeries says that an unexpected topping can elevate a conventional drink into the ‘special' category. Lotus has recently developed its standard caramelised biscuit into a range of products, featuring a spread, a crumb and a topping sauce.
"Unique flavours will always command a higher selling price, and the Biscoff has now become a versatile ingredient that can be used to add the ‘wow' factor to a beverage," she says. "A sprinkle of Biscoff crumb to top a swirl of whipped cream is a visual indulgence that has the Instagram factor, and the new Biscoff Topping Sauce gives greater flexibility for drizzles and finishing touches.
"This is an easy way to elevate any simple hot beverage into a speciality flavoured beverage."
Chilled coffee drinks have grown to become a major part of the drinks menu, but still need differentiation to turn them into profitable house specials.
Don't forget the visual importance of the ice, suggests Scotsman ice brand Hubbard. Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, who recently won the Coffee in Good Spirits world championship, has collaborated with the company on a booklet called Coffee Inspirations, examining the use of different types of ice for various drinks.
All ice is not the same – some types are slow-melt, so do not dilute the drink. In some cases, ice can assist in the layering of drinks for visual effect, and Hubbard also notes that flavoured ice cubes are a simple way to add perceived value to iced coffees, colouring and cooling them without watering them down.
However, notes Hubbard, a little experimentation is vital – typically, flavoured syrups are a quick way of adding flavour, but they have a high sugar content, and so assessing the right amount of dilution is necessary to create a flavoured cube that stays solid.
Eteaketwww.eteaket.co.uk 0131 226 1292
Hubbardwww.scotsman-ice.co.uk 01473 350045
Lavazzawww.lavazza.co.uk 01895 209750
Lotus Biscoffwww.lotusbiscoff.com/en-gb 0800 834 050
Moninwww.monin.com/uk 01795 476154
Shibuiwww.shibui-tea.co.uk 0131 448 1598
Taylorswww.taylorsofharrogate.co.uk 0800 328 1886
Tetleywww.tetleyfoodservice.co.uk 0800 028 3728
Twiningswww.twinings.co.uk/food-service 01264 313444
Welbilt/Cremwww.welbilt.uk 01483 464900
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